Standout Stars help teach soccer to refugees

Photo: Andrew McMurtrie. Providence's Robby Lyew plays with refugee children at Northlake Church of Christ last week in Tucker. Over the past three years, Stars head soccer coach Todd Henry has brought members of his team to play with refugees in Clarkston.

Photo: Andrew McMurtrie. Providence's Robby Lyew plays with refugee children at Northlake Church of Christ last week in Tucker. Over the past three years, Stars head soccer coach Todd Henry has brought members of his team to play with refugees in Clarkston.

Jennifer Garrett pulls up to a make-shift soccer field at Northlake Church of Christ and a group of kids pile out of her car.

The 2003 Providence grad is immediately greeted by Khanh, a Vietnamese refugee.

The two share hellos and walk down a small hill, where Garrett sees her former high school soccer coach, Todd Henry.

"Hey, boys, you going to play?" Henry yells across the field.

A group of refugee boys come over and immediately begin playing soccer with the rest of the kids.

There are more than 25 kids on the field, a few more than a regulation soccer game would require. A group of Providence soccer players stand out among the dozens of nationalities on the field. There are kids from Sudan, Nepal, Burma, Lebanon and Congo to name a few.

They are from different parts of the worlds, but share several things in common.

They are refugees, coming to America to seek freedom from persecution because of their race, religion or nationality.

They live in low-income housing in nearby Clarkston.

And they love soccer.

"That's all they know is soccer, that's what they grew up playing." Henry said.

A group of middle school and high school boys dominate the main playing field. Off to the side is a smaller field designated for smaller boys. A third area features a soccer game with just girls. All told, there are anywhere from 60 to 80 refugee kids playing soccer.

That's were Garrett enters the picture.

Many of the kids came from countries where girls are not allowed to play sports, so a number of them had never kicked a ball until they showed up at Northlake Church. Garrett teaches them the basics.

"I love working with kids and playing soccer, but after going to Africa I knew that my heart was for the international community and the world," Garrett said. "I love it and now I feel like I don't even have to go because they are 10 minutes away from me. I had no idea this even existed."

It's nearly 30 minutes since they started playing and Henry puts a halt to the game. It's a hot summer evening in Georgia. Temperatures are in the low 90s.

Henry has the players go to the nearby pavilion for a water break.

The Providence players interact with the refugees. There's hardly a language barrier. Most of the kids have been coming to the Monday night pick-up games for the last three years and speak English fairly well.

"We were kind of nervous and not sure what to expect playing with other cultures," said Providence senior Taylor Henry, pausing to take a drink from his water bottle. "Soccer is a game that anybody can play and it doesn't matter how good you are. You can have a love for the game. The kids out here really have a passion for it."

Some kids stand near the goal as the game continues. They chat with other kids, kick the ball around. It's more of a social outing for them. Other kids show a real passion for the game. A good pass and a failed goal will result in some good-nature harassing.

"They are always happy to come play," said Tyler Marshall, a Providence junior. "I wish I was playing soccer when I was their age. They are real good."

Providence's involvement with the pick-up soccer games began three years ago. Todd Henry met Bobby King, a Clarkston resident with a passion for helping the refugee community. King suggested they come play soccer and Henry thought it would benefit his players, more off the field than on it.

"It's not about our guys getting better," Henry said. "It's about our guys learning to serve and our guys seeing that not everyone lives the way Americans live."

Providence Christian Academy is a private school in Lilburn about 10 miles away from Clarkston. A majority of the student body comes from upper middle-class families.

"It was perfect because the Providence kids were seeing a part of life they will never see probably," King said. "The refugees were just mixing it up with American kids. So you had this wonderful blend of cultures, which is good for everybody."

King has established a few basic rules. There's no cursing, no fighting and no weapons allowed. Other than two minor incidents, there have been no problems.

Some kids have been coming to the event since it started three years ago, like Elvis, a 10-year-old refugee from Burundi in East Africa.

"I like the kids," he said. "I have a lot of fun here."

Elvis was one of the kids who arrived via carpool. Some kids walk from nearby neighborhoods, others ride their bikes and some are picked up by volunteer carpoolers like Garrett, Jodi Gross and Elise Lander.

"I live 10 minutes away and I had no idea the whole world was right here," Garrett said.

The evening has wound down. The kids have played soccer for nearly two hours. It's hot, they are sweaty and tired. What better way to end the day than with watermelon?

After spending the first hour of the evening picking up kids, King makes a quick stop at the store to pick up some fresh watermelon. He has the kids get in a single-file line and has them properly ask for a piece of watermelon in English. He'll be here another 30 minutes or longer before spending an hour taking kids home. But he wouldn't want to spend his summer evenings any other way.

"It's just a really nice way for them to get good exercise, build relationships, improve their English and to see that they are unconditionally accepted by everyone," King said. "This is a real good example of the great American experiment."

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